Thursday 25 August 2016

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)

Director: Henry Hathaway
Writer: Nigel Balchin, from the novel The Nursemaid Who Disappeared aka Warrant for X by Philip MacDonald
Stars: Van Johnson and Vera Miles
I’ll be posting a flurry of centennial reviews at Apocalypse Later this week, with three due in three days. I’ll be celebrating Martha Raye and George Montgomery on Saturday, while today marks a hundred years since the birth of Van Johnson, who shared a wife with my last subject, Keenan Wynn. In fact, Johnson married Eve Abbott, a stage actress, the day after her divorce from Wynn was finalised. To be fair, she later explained that the whole thing was conjured up by MGM, as Louis B Mayer wanted a big star like Van Johnson to have a wife to hide the fact that he was gay, so ordered what was known in Hollywood as a lavender marriage. The star remained a big name, even in 1956 after he had been dropped by MGM. He’s still justly remembered for movies like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Caine Mutiny, but I chose this little gem from 20th Century Fox that gifts him with the opportunity to portray a blind playwright, who overhears a conversation that leads him into a race to save a kidnapped child. Its a dream of a role.

He’s Phillip Hannon, an American living in self-imposed exile in London, where he writes by dictation, capturing his work on a reel to reel tape recorder for Bob, his assistant, to type up. His first words are rather telling, partly because they’re minor revisions to a hit play he’s bringing from Broadway to the West End rather than anything new and partly because they reflect the bitterness that has eaten him since he became blind. ‘Sorry?,’ he barks into his mike. ‘What have you been to be sorry about? You didn’t make the world and neither did I!’ When Jean Lennox promptly arrives from New York, he pours bitterness all over her too. She’s clearly an ex from her first appearance even though she just as clearly doesn’t want to be, although 1950s Hollywood weakened what should have been a relationship between a boss and his secretary by making them actually engaged. ‘And then it happened,’ she tells Bob. ‘He didn’t like having me around. So I was fired.’ And so Hannon is even more of an ass than he should have been.
Jean is played by Vera Miles, who is a soft spoken delight in this picture, which arrived at a crucial point in her career. Only a year earlier, she was a Miss Kansas playing the love interest in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle, but then she gave a great performance in Revenge, the pilot episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show. That prompted Hitchcock to cast her opposite Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man, later in 1956, then Vertigo (though she was replaced because of pregnancy by Kim Novak), and, of course, Psycho. She’d starred with John Wayne in The Searchers immediately before this picture and John Ford would later cast her between Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. She lives up to that promise immediately. When Bob asks if she’s a friend of Mr Hannon’s, she replies simply, ‘Well, I think of myself as one,’ a line that superbly explains their relationship at this time. When her former fiancĂ© takes her onto the balcony to point out to her the sights of London, she deliberately looks only at him instead.

Of course, the script has to find some way for Hannon’s bitterness to be somewhat abated, because we don’t want to watch him for ninety minutes like this, and the next scene sets that up beautifully. He heads over the road for a double scotch at the Eagle and to listen to the world. Initially it’s just a gentleman playing a pinball machine, but then it’s a pair of enticing voices within the Ladies Bar right behind him. A lady pleads not to be forced into a crime by her companion, who sounds rather like Peter Lorre trying to be the Godfather. His hearing enhanced by his loss of vision, Hannon nonetheless strains to hear this conversation and remember the dialogue, so that he can promptly record it after returning to his apartment, in turn so he can replay it later to the police. He believes that the woman was a nursemaid to nobility and she is being forced to get something from Mary to give to Evans on the upcoming 10th of the month. A robbery? The kidnapping of a child? ‘It’s something,’ he says. ‘Something very wrong.’
I’m going to pause for a moment to return to that concept of lavender marriage. The unnamed barmaid who serves Hannan is the wonderful Estelle Winwood, a stage actress who made few films over her long life (she was the oldest actress in the Screen Actors Guild when she died in 1984 at 101). She was married four times and at least one was a lavender marriage, to gay theatre director Guthrie McClintic, whose further lavender marriage of forty years to the lesbian stage actress Katharine Cornell is often cited as a prime example of the practice; theirs is the photo which illustrates the Wikipedia article on the subject. I tend to think of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, he being gay and she bisexual, though that may have returned to mind as I remember Winwood as Lanchester’s nurse in Murder by Death. Winwood was one of the Four Riders of the Algonquin, with Eva Le Gallienne, Blyth Daly and Tallulah Bankhead, her best friend for decades. All were lesbian or bisexual and some considered or joined lavender marriages.

Even though gay marriage has only recently been made legal in the United States by the Supreme Court, most of us are aware that gay people exist, probably because we know them and may even be related to them. It’s hard to believe that people didn’t actually know that Liberace was gay, for example, but that’s because it was an underground concept at the time. Back in the early years of the twentieth century, public opinion made it nigh on impossible to be both gay and have a prominent career in Hollywood, which was notably awkward for the many people who were both. Most maintained the latter by hiding the former and there was never a better way to hide homosexuality than getting married. Most outrageously, this was often not by choice but because some studios placed morality clauses in contracts, which prompted the downfall of some and the impetus for others to be forced into lavender marriages. Times have certainly changed; we don’t even have separate rooms in which ladies must drink in pubs any more!
Back to the film at hand, both the characters and the story have just leapt into motion. The police listen politely to Hannon’s story but dismiss his interpretation of the conversation entirely, albeit more because he’s a dramatist than because of his blindness, as it could be argued that his very job description tasks him with imagining things. ‘Is that all there was, Mr Hannon?’ they ask. And so, as tends to happen in such tales, he must become an amateur sleuth and solve the mystery himself. Crime fiction is full of unlikely detectives but what makes Hannon special is that his blindness doesn’t merely hinder his ability to investigate, the very case itself provides the spark he’s needed to come to terms with it. It also brings Jean back into his life, because he connects the perfume the lady was wearing with what she used to wear when they were together. She soon becomes his right hand again and explains to the police why it’s important. ‘You see,’ she tells them, ‘this is the first real thing that’s brought him to life in a long time.’

In other words, this mystery provides him with both a constant reminder of his disability and a number of reasons to live his life as best he can anyway. There are points where he simply forgets to be bitter, wrapped up as he is in the hunt, and Johnson does well at suggesting that without ever making it obvious. In many ways, he’s playing a character who’s playing a part but gradually losing connection to that part and becoming himself again. He even finds benefits to being blind, which he would never have considered even so recently at the beginning of the film. ‘Oh, you people with eyes!’ he tells Jean when she fails to hear or smell what he does. ‘You’re so busy looking, you never notice anything!’ Clearly, this script takes Hannon’s blindness seriously, not only as a gimmick but also as a means of deepening both his character and the mystery that he’s driven to solve. That’s very Hitchcockian and it’s yet another reminder of Rear Window, made two years earlier, to which this often warrants comparison.
The screenplay was written by Nigel Balchin, a novelist before he ever became a screenwriter. At this point, two of his novels had been adapted to the screen and a third for the stage. One of them, The Small Back Room, which had popularised the term ‘back room boys’, was filmed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. He didn’t write the source for this picture though, adapting one by Philip MacDonald, another novelist whose work had been frequently adapted to film, hardly surprising given that his father was a writer and his mother an actress. In fact, two of his novels had been filmed by Michael Powell, underlining a connection between MacDonald and Balchin. This was the fourteenth adaptation of a MacDonald work and the second of his novel, The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, also known as Warrant for X. This was the looser adaptation, given that it removes the detective who investigates the crime, Anthony Gethryn, and renders the playwright blind, so this story would seem to be as much Balchin’s as MacDonald’s.

Beyond the script, the film adds other worthy elements. It was shot in Cinemascope, so it’s big and wide from the opening shots of the Thames, and it was shot by someone who knew how to put that format to good use. He’s Milton R Krasner, who had, two years prior, shot Three Coins in a Fountain, which won him the first Oscar awarded for cinematography in a widescreen film. It was shot in London, so the opening panoramas of the Thames were original location footage rather than spliced in material borrowed from a stock vault. MacDonald was well known for writing visually, but Krasner and director Henry Hathaway set up a number of highly impressive shots, including one where the blind playwright has been suckered into a partially demolished building and is about to walk off the edge of a room into nowhere. There’s also clever use of the London fog, both visually and within the story, given that the very title comes from directions Hannan can give to someone with sight who’s rendered just as blind as he is by the fog.
Generally, this is a solid thriller from an era of solid thrillers. It bears strong comparisons to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, not only Rear Window, which also centered around a crime only believed by one man with a disability, but others too. The downside is that it needed Hitch to ground it better. Balchin’s script is capable and includes much that’s praiseworthy but it relies on two things. One is the twist, which I saw through immediately, partly because I’d seen a more famous film that features the same twist (admittedly it didn’t arrive for another year but was based on a hit play from 1953, in turn based on a famous short story from 1925). The other is the progression of discoveries, because we have to rely entirely on Hannon for these as they’re not the sort we can figure out in advance. This isn’t a mystery for us to solve along with the protagonists; it’s a procedural where we watch the protagonists solve it and thrill to the cleverness of it all. As long as we’re OK with those caveats, it works well, but if we’re not, they’ll hurt the film.

1 comment:

Vienna said...

Great review and I agree it has Hitchcock touches in the script.